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When Public Land Hunting Outshines Private

As the record books show, private land is not the only place to kill a giant whitetail buck.

When Public Land Hunting Outshines Private

(Ricardo Reitmeyer / Shutterstock photo)

Watch television shows, read magazine articles, and check your social media feeds and it would seem that private land is the only place to kill a giant whitetail buck. But as the record books show, that's not always so.

In the deer hunting world, the idea persists that the best opportunity to succeed and take a monster buck exists on private ground that is expensive to lease or difficult to gain access to.

But even then, the feat of taking a monster buck isn’t easy and remains one of deer hunting’s most difficult and rewarding challenges, no matter what state a hunter is hunting in and whether or not that hunter has a key to the lock on the front gate.

That’s true in the big buck Valhalla’s of the American Midwest, the prairie provinces of Canada, and the Brush Country of South Texas, places where the chances of taking a so-called book-buck, one that qualifies for the Boone and Crockett Club’s record book or the Pope and Young Club’s archery record book, are better than they are elsewhere. But even then, the odds are long and the chances are slim.

Why? Because even in today’s good old days of deer hunting, tagging a record book bruiser is a rare thing, one that will require upping the odds by hunting the best ground you can find, tackling the many hours of preparation and practice that are necessary to seal the deal, and punching the clock long enough to finally find yourself in the right place at the right time on that magical fall day when Big Boy finally walks down the trail.

If you’re the kind of hunter who relishes such a challenge—and the kind who might want to make that feat even more challenging than it already is—then why not go for broke and aim for whitetail hunting’s ultimate accomplishment, the taking of a record book buck from public hunting ground?

To make good on this challenge, follow the recipe of finding a state with good overall whitetail genetics and locate a public hunting spot that is either tough to draw, one that few other hunters know about, or a place that only the most adventurous hunters are willing to tackle.

After that, put in plenty of time scouting with your boots on the ground and at home with your computer; practice and become deadly proficient with your bow, rifle, shotgun, or muzzleloader; cash in your precious vacation days for the most prized calendar dates in late October and November; and somehow find a way to control your nerves and make good on the shot opportunity of a lifetime when Mr. Freak Nasty comes calling.

When Public Land Hunting Outshines Private
Not all big buck trails lead to heavily managed farms and deer leases on private land. From one end of the country to the other, state lands, federal lands, and other parcels of public hunting ground can yield surprisingly big bucks before, during, and after the rut. (Lynn Burkhead photo)

If you do so, you’ll know the peaceful, sweet sleep that comes to someone who bucks the trend and accomplishes what others insist can’t be done. Like America’s best business innovators, there is little better in life than beating long odds, proving everyone else wrong, and doing something that will leave others struggling with envy.

All the while as they snap Smartphone selfies of your buck, wondering out loud how you got so lucky to take a giant whitetail on public ground. And you’ll smile quietly, knowing that luck had little to do with your success while careful planning, attention to details, and a willingness to outwork everyone else is why your taxidermy bill is suddenly costing you so much this fall.

One of my favorite stories on this topic took place a little more than an hour from where I live. And despite the fact that I wasn’t even in kindergarten when it happened, the story of Bill Foster’s giant public land buck in south-central Oklahoma inspires me to this day.

When Public Land Hunting Outshines Private
The popular idea out there is often that the biggest bucks come from hunters with the keys to private land. But as Bill Foster’s buck from Oklahoma in the early 1970s show—along with plenty of others from more recent times—sometimes, public land can outshine private land when it comes to record book whitetails. (Lynn Burkhead photo)

The year when Foster accomplished his deer hunting feat was 1970, certainly a different time for deer hunters in America and still years away from the “good old days” when populations would rebound from record lows near the beginning of the 20th Century to record highs by its end. By the late 1960s, deer numbers were thankfully beginning to noticeably surge the other way, confirming one of the greatest conservation success stories in American history.

But even then, deer hunting certainly looked different as there was no North American Whitetail magazine, no #DeerWeek emphasis on Outdoor Channel, no Sportsman Channel, and no My Outdoors TV (MOTV) digital platform. Today, these networks and digital efforts are loaded with hours and hours of programming dedicated to the king of North America’s big game animals, something hunters 50 years ago could scarcely even dream of.

When Public Land Hunting Outshines Private
While private land deer hunts dominate the TV shows, magazine stories, and Instagram posts, sometimes, hard working hunters who take aim at public land success can take surprisingly big bucks each fall. (Lynn Burkhead photo)

Nor were there any game cameras a half-century ago, along with an absence of grunt calls, scent control clothing, scent eliminating sprays, ozone generating machines, lightweight treestands, featherweight climbing sticks, and fiberglass blinds. Ditto for speed demon compound bows and crazy fast crossbows that can sling an arrow halfway to Mars, not to mention few rifle options outside of the familiar 30.06, .270, and .243 calibers.

Finally, there was little emphasis on private land development for managing whitetail herds, with tasks like soil pH testing, hinge cutting, the planting of thermal cover, the leaving of standing corn and soybeans for winter usage, and the planting of huge destination food plots that can suck in half the deer found within a single county.

So, what exactly was there way back then? A growing group of dedicated rifle hunters, bowhunters, and muzzleloaders who learned all that they could about deer through books, magazines, mentors, and hard-won experience.

One of those men was Bill M. Foster, the hunter mentioned above and a dedicated bowhunter from Oklahoma, a man who chased a monster whitetail for several years back in a time when there simply weren’t many trophy whitetails anywhere.

I came across Foster’s story several years ago while researching another Oklahoma big buck tale and I was instantly intrigued about the 247 7/8-inch whopper buck that I knew nothing about. So big, in fact, that even to this day, Foster’s huge buck remains the Sooner State’s top entry in the hallowed B&C record book.

When Public Land Hunting Outshines Private
Not all trophy bucks are on private land. (Jim Cumming / Shutterstock photo)

As I sought more information about the late Ada, Okla. resident and his 1970 monster buck, I found some of what I was looking for thanks to a story in the archives of The Daily Oklahoman newspaper. I also found additional information—and a photo—from the B&C book, A Whitetail Retrospective.

In the Nov. 21, 1982, newspaper story written by the late Daily Oklahoman outdoor writer Covey Bean, Foster told his tale about one of the best trophy whitetails ever taken anywhere in the country at that time, a trophy that came through a lot of effort and being in the right place at the right time.

What makes this story even more intriguing is that Foster chased this bruiser buck exclusively on a wildlife management area in south-central Oklahoma. And despite not even knowing what a trail camera was back then, Foster had seen the deer, had a couple of opportunities go awry, and was determined to be the lucky hunter that finally put the huge non-typical on the ground.

“I’m strictly a bowhunter,” Foster told Bean. “I’d hunted him 10 or 12 times a year during bow season. Every time I was off work, I’d been in the woods with him and every time I would see him in the same area.”

A bowhunter of two-plus decades at the time of Bean’s story, Foster indicated that he had probably killed a dozen or so bow bucks in his career. But the big Washita River bottomland monster of the late 1960s eluded the bowhunter, despite a couple of close calls.

Finally, as gun season began to approach and other hunters in the area waited for their chance, Foster elected to trade in his recurve for a shotgun. With that decision, it finally all came together on Nov. 15, 1970, as Foster sat in a stand overlooking some brushy terrain.

“I’d been there about two hours,” Foster told Bean. “When he came out of the breaks, he came right to that tree.”

Using a 12-gauge shotgun, Foster fired a slug into the buck’s shoulder at only 25-yards, dropped it in its tracks, and ended a long and anxious quest. Field dressing at a reported 178-pounds, the buck made quite a splash in the area, going “viral” decades before the Internet and social media came on the scene.


“Everybody wanted to see it,” Foster told Bean. “It was my pride and joy.”

That’s easy enough to understand when you consider the measuring tape numbers of Foster’s big non-typical, a 30-point buck that has a gross score of 252 7/8 inches and a net score of 247 2/8 inches. Add in an inside spread of 24 6/8 inches, main beams measuring more than 25 inches, and base circumference measurements of nearly six inches on both sides, and it’s easy to see why Foster was a 1970s deer hunting rock star in Oklahoma at a time when Elvis was still king.

But Foster’s huge buck is far from the only example of public ground outshining private land when it comes to deer hunting. In fact, in recent years, other huge public land bucks have included Dan Ryan’s 184 2/8-inch non-typical taken from public ground in Wisconsin back in 2016; Josh Clark’s Canemount WMA buck in 2017, a big Mississippi non-typical bruiser that gross scored 198 6/8 inches and net scored 162 6/8 inches; and Lukey Smith’s 155 4/8-inch eight-pointer from East Texas’ Davy Crockett National Forest in the fall of 2020.

When Public Land Hunting Outshines Private
(REDAV / Shutterstock photo)

And then there’s the tale of college-aged bowhunter Leo Van Beck, a young archer who started hunting a whopper non-typical whitetail several years ago, eventually catching up with the buck on heavily pressured public ground in central Minnesota back in the fall of 2019.

After getting some photos but never seeing the buck on the private ground he could hunt, Leo told regular North American Whitetail contributor Bernie Barringer that he decided to check out a nasty stretch of public ground that few deer hunters would even bother with because it was so ridiculously swampy and thick.

The swampy turf was so dense—think late season pheasant cover in the depths of winter—that Van Beck had difficulty finding the spot he wanted to hunt on the late October morning when everything finally came together. Soaked in sweat, the hunter got his stand situated in a tree and sat back to cool off and wait and see what might happen.

What happened a short while later is that the buck gave Van Beck the shot opportunity of a lifetime, a woodsy test that the college student passed as he sent an arrow downrange. Worried about the hit initially, Van Beck texted family members and asked them to pray as he sat and waited nervously for tracking help to arrive.

Those prayers were answered at midday when family help arrived, working to help young Leo track the huge buck down. In what ultimately proved to be an easy-to-follow blood trail, Van Beck experienced a rush that few deer hunters will ever know, the tagging of a Boone and Crockett monster on public ground.

“Everyone was just as excited as I was,” Leo told Barringer of his public land whitetail that sported 16 scorable points and netted 209 5/8 inches, cementing its place in the record books as one of Minnesota’s best ever archery bucks on public ground.

“There was a sense of awe putting my hands on that deer for the first time,” Van Beck said of the recovery of his huge public land buck. “I was speechless. This was a gift from God.”

They all are, in fact, good and antlered gifts from above. But sometimes, as these and other big buck stories prove, that’s especially true on public ground, places that on occasion can even outshine the best private hunting ground found anywhere around.

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